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"For a generous psychology.
We help a person more by giving him a favorable image of himself than by constantly reminding him of his shortcomings. Each individual normally strives to resemble his best image. Can be applied to teaching, to history, to philosophy, to politics. We are for instance the result of twenty centuries of Christian imagery. For two thousand years man has been offered a humiliating image of himself. The result is obvious. Anyway, who can say what we should be if those twenty centuries had clung to the ancient ideal with its beautiful human face." Albert Camus -- Notebooks
In January of 1960, a powerful sports car was traveling north in France towards Paris. Albert Camus was a passenger in the car. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957 and had been called in the presentation speech "the conscience of the 20th century." He had been an actor and an editor, a dramatist and a novelist, and was active in the underground resistance against the Nazis in World War II. He was forty-six years old and well known around the world. Camus was traveling to Paris with friends after spending the New Year holiday on his property in the south of France. It was raining. The car came out at one point on a straight, clear stretch of road. About midway it went off the road and rammed into a tree. Camus was killed. One newspaper at the time reported, "It was a dramatic end for the young writer who was a leader and interpreter of the philosophy of postwar France's wild, young existentialist set."
If the existentialist set in France was wild, this is hardly a charge that can be levelled against Camus. A more thoroughly earnest man it would be hard to find anywhere. And yet, his sudden senseless death there on the road lends support to one of the fundamental ideas of the existentialists movement: that life is absurd, senseless, that anything can happen to anyone at any time, without rhyme or reason; life is illogical; the only god is the god of chance; "Time and chance happeneth to all men," as the preacher said many years ago. And yet, in his works Camus is stating, is demanding, that life has value without having meaning. In so doing he is rebelling against two things: on the one hand, nihilism, that is the belief in nothing; and on the other hand, the Christian concept of contemptus mundi, contempt for the world, which forces one to turn away from the living, present moment and to be concerned about some time in the future.
Camus believed that life is neither a pilgrimage nor a program, but an attitude. Translated into dramatic terms, life is not a plot but a scene. What is important is the living moment, the present.
I was a student at the University of California when the news of Camus's death arrived on the west coast. We had been studying his works in a Continental Literature class and I had found in him a powerful voice that resonated deeply in me. His clarity, his depth of vision, penetrated through the fog of the cold war revealing human truths that might provide our salvation in world where gods and religion seemed the problem and not the solution. His notion of the Absurd made perfect sense to me. The absurd, he taught us, came about as a result of a clash between what we long for and what is. When we cry out to the heavens in despair there is no answer. Only silence. And that is the absurd.
If the absurd sounds dark and foreboding then we must face it and accept it as a given, brute fact. When we concentrate on here and now we can, Camus argues, find joy in this life. He writes:
The thing that lights up the world and makes it bearable is the customary feeling we have of our connection with it -- and more particularly of what links us to human beings. Relations with other people always help us to carry on because they always suppose developments, a future -- and also because we live as if our only purpose were to have relations with human beings. … The whole problem of the absurd ought to be able to be centered on a critique of the value judgment and the factual judgment. --Notebook IV, 57
In the 1960s Knopf published English translations of Camus's notebooks I through VI. The author had revised and edited those volumes and they gave us an insight into the creative mind of the novelist and philosopher and offered his comments on his published works as well as plans for the future. When he died his valise contained, along with the working draft of Le Premiere Homme, the rough drafts of what has now been published in this English translation as Notebooks 1951 -- 1959.
This collection includes the following:
1 Lists of things to do
2 Lists of things done
3 Quotes from authors -- Emerson, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Nietzsche, Melville, Shakespeare
4 Project outlines -- plays, novel
5 Ideas to be developed
6 Personal reports
7 Family notes
He writes, for example, of death, "Revolting death. The history of mankind is the history of the myths which it covers up reality. … And yet there is no human reality if in the end there is no acceptance of death without hope." (11) The acceptance of death is a prerequisite for a joyful life. Camus's insistence that we concentrate our efforts on this world and this life is predicated on the awareness that life is surrounded by non-existence just as a picture is surrounded by a frame.
He writes down his reactions to certain texts, "One evening, absently turning the pages of an agreeable book, I read without reaction: "As with many passionate souls, the moment had come when faith in life was faltering." A second later, the sentence again resounded in me, and I burst into tears." (31) He criticizes slogans, ""Two common errors: existence precedes essence or essence existence. Both march and rise with the same step." (67) He also writes down human feelings which come sweeping over him unbidden and unwanted: "If I were to die this evening, I would die with an awful feeling previously unknown to me, which, nonetheless, causes me pain this evening. The feeling that I have helped and continue to help many people -- and yet nobody comes to help me.....Not proud of myself." (32
This volume contains cahiers VII, VIII, and IX with material from March 1951 until Camus's death. Only VII has been edited by the author; the others were in manuscript form and have been translated from the handwritten pages. Anyone interested in the works of Camus will benefit from this work. Anyone needing an introduction to his work will find this an interesting way in to the works of the man the Nobel Committee called "the conscience of the twentieth century." Ryan Bloom has done a painstakingly careful translation and provides the reader with notes when needed for understanding context.
The first words of this review are from Camus and have taught me a life lesson I have tried to apply to students and others throughout my teaching career. Following his advice results in dealing with others as you would have them deal with you. I will give the last words of this review to the last words of Ryan Bloom's "Afterword" which closes with this ringing endorsement of Camus's work: "his voice … is still alive and will continue to live long past his shortened life." (264)
© 2008 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.